Broken Fourth Walls
A scream tickled Fiona’s throat. She shifted on her barstool away from Ryan. They were in another Denver bar featuring seasonal cocktails with smug names, like the one called “Smokey and the Bandit” that Ryan, of course, had ordered.
Plus, not enough hours had passed since midnight, and already, it was almost empty. But, even when it hadn’t been, the humming crowd in the cavernous space had left her feeling unnaturally exposed, unlike in New York. Out at night there, she would feel like she was floating in a pleasant human bubble where she was close enough to touch everyone, but never had to reach out and do it.
Ryan took a sip of his smoke-emitting bourbon drink, complete with an ice cube on steroids. “Delicious.”
Fiona smirked and gestured with her chin toward the pretty bartender with her long blonde braid and form-fitting denim shirt. “Maybe Miss Nebraska will crack an egg in my wine. They can call it their new winter cocktail.”
The bartender smiled at them, clueless, before turning and going into the back.
Ryan sighed and leaned away. “You could try.”
That’s when Fiona saw that there was a woman sitting next to him, like she’d been there all along. She was tapping a pen against a notebook decorated with drawings of peacock feathers. Her drab black suit covered most of her bulky body. Stringy dark hair that came to her waist receded from her pale forehead. A glass of white wine materialized from the shadow by her hand.
She hunched down and peered through the glass at Fiona, the liquid like a funhouse mirror undulating her eyes. She straightened. “I’m solo.”
Fiona faced forward. She reached up to tuck a phantom chunk of black hair behind her ear. She still forgot, when she was agitated, that she’d gotten a pixie cut before the move.
This woman obviously had no idea of the rules between people in close proximity. Like in crowded subways where you could manage to go an entire ride touching the shoulders, hips, and legs of another person without any communication. Or, like in restaurants where you might secretly appraise the person next to you, but you didn’t outwardly acknowledge their existence, despite that you were sitting closer than you might have sat to your own brother and father during melancholy family dinners in the small town in Maine where you grew up.
Ryan, however, turned to the woman. “We just moved here from Brooklyn. My wife and I have been dying to try this place.”
The woman winked at Fiona. Or, her eye twitched.
“Both his idea,” Fiona muttered, then regretted speaking, because the woman smiled at her with salivating teeth, her eagerness so undisguised that it made Fiona’s skin crawl.
Fiona recoiled into the pillar next to her. Frowning, Maggie opened her notebook and stared at the red lights hanging like tentacles from the ceiling, then scrawled in her book with her lips pursed.
Those emphatic strokes. A wave of what Fiona would call déjà vu, if she believed in such nonsense, washed over her. She’d seen this woman before, on the subway when she was heading home to Brooklyn. She was getting home late after another pointless night of waitressing that left her too tired every day to work on her clothing designs. The ones that she’d cradled under her arm the whole bus ride from Maine into the city, with the clichéd optimism and naïve assuredness of those knowing they’ll be “discovered.”
The woman was sitting across from her as the subway car flew onto the outside track. She was clutching her pen and scratching into her notebook. Fiona had closed her eyes. She often found herself repulsed by aging women with their wrinkles and the mothy smells emerging from their skin. She’d opened her eyes when the train lurched to its next stop, and the woman was gone.
Fiona tugged on the sleeves of her maroon leather jacket and shook her head. Of course it couldn’t have been her. Women like that always looked the same.
“She’s adding us to the list,” Ryan joked out of the corner of his mouth, probably to excuse Fiona’s choice to rebuff Maggie, because this was how Ryan was with Fiona—forever forgiving her and trying to get her to forgive herself.
Fiona didn’t laugh. Maggie’s doughy cheek, turned from her, was like loneliness itself—that doomed, treacherous feeling and the one that Fiona had always fought with all her might.
Maggie’s eyes flew up to meet Fiona’s gaze, as if to say, ‘Caught you.’ She slammed her notebook shut. “I lived in Manhattan once.”
Her eyeballs rolled upwards. Her white skin glowed. “I met Andy Warhol my first night there. He looked at me, and said—” Maggie pursed her lips in a passable Warhol imitation. “You are so cute.”
She pinched her thumb and forefinger together. “I was teeny tiny back then. I’d arrived just that day from Kansas, if you can believe that. Just all rosy cheeked and ready.” She chortled, then breathed deeply, slowing down the spasms that shook her body. “So I wandered into this bar. I had this North Face backpack. He thought it was grand. The most fashionable thing he’d ever seen. He kept saying look at that, where did you get that?”
“Warhol?” Ryan asked.
Maggie’s eyes were focused somewhere past them. “He said, this is where you’re going tonight. Madonna’s birthday, Mick Jagger’s party. They crushed Quaaludes in my drink. I didn’t have a choice. I had this great butt so people did lines off my back.” She leaned over and lifted her shirt over her broad back streaked with faint red claw marks.
Fiona flinched and tingled with the urge to cover her up.
Maggie’s blue eyes watered as she pointed at Fiona with a shaking finger, the bare nail bitten down to the skin. “You don’t believe me. No one ever does. But I thought you would. You were there that night.”
Ryan squinted. “Huh?”
Maggie didn’t look at him. She dropped her hand. Her cracked, red-painted lips turned up like a manic clown. “I got a cat.” She stuck her nose in the air and spoke in a fake French accent. “He’s Jean Bijou, like that.” She started singing. “Jean Bijou, Jean Bijou, he’s the best cat I ever knew.”
Fiona pressed her fingers into her temples.
Tears ran past Maggie’s plastered smile. “I’ve lost everything. They picked me up, I was so small, and carried me into Studio 54, all over. This is where you’re going tonight. Prince’s birthday.”
Maggie’s tears began to evaporate in her feverish eyes. “I met Bette Davis. And Bill Murray asked me out once when I was a waitress at this café in the West Village. Just came out of his limo and told me to come with him to a Phillies game of all things. What was the café called?” Her eyes filled again when they didn’t have an answer. “Cottonwood Café.” She cackled and scrawled the name on a blank page in the middle of her notebook.
“I was a model.” She looked down at herself. “A short model. Part of the petite elite.” She wiggled on her stool. “That was the era of Cindy Crawford, and I was like, whoa.” She started singing again. “Jean Bijou, Jean Bijou. He’s the best cat …”
Fiona covered her ears.
Maggie lunged forward and gripped Fiona’s knee. “I’ve been wanting to take you home.”
Her fingers dug into Fiona’s jeans until Ryan leaned over. He picked up Maggie’s veiny hand and placed it back in her own lap.
“Okay, that’s enough, now.” His voice was firm, though not unkind, as he held up his phone. “I got you a cab.”
Maggie wobbled off her stool. “I see.”
Once Maggie was standing, the top of her head came up to Ryan’s shoulders. She arched on her tiptoes and whispered something in Ryan’s ear, then shuffled toward the door. Dim patches around vacant tables obscured her until she’d disappeared into the snowy night.
“Don’t leave me hanging.” Fiona’s voice quivered against her will.
Ryan shook his head. “She said she’s your mother.”
“That’s imposs ...”
The last syllables that Fiona meant to mutter dropped from her lips like a mirror shattering, leaving shards that could only reflect back a fragmented image. She turned. Maggie’s white face ballooned against the bar window. She backed away, blending with the darkness, leaving the fog of her breath on the glass.